Jews and Arabs in Israel: Dancing Toward a Better Future

As a Jewish state, Israel is the homeland of the Jewish nation, thus entitling all its members to a unique key to enter the house. However, every legal citizen, whether a Jew or not, must be treated fairly, equally, and equitably within that house. 


In May 1948, Israel’s Declaration of Independence was published, stating the establishment of the Jewish state. In 1992, Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty was legislated, enshrining the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In 2018, Basic Law: Israel – The Nation-State of the Jewish People (hereafter, the Nation-State Law) was legislated, holding that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people.

Israel’s political and legal features as a modern democratic nation-based state were already outlined in Resolution 181(II) of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) (hereinafter, the Partition Plan), which explicitly elaborated its resolution and vision to establish two independent democratic nation-based states in Mandatory Palestine, i.e., an Arab state and a Jewish one.

The Constitutive Documents

 The Partition Plan

The Partition Plan is the first official international document recognizing Jewishness as a national identity, which legally justifies the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state. The question then is not whether Israel may define itself as a Jewish state but rather what is the meaning of a Jewish state. Accordingly, this essay asks what it means to be a Jewish state, from a collective national perspective, as depicted in the provisions of the Partition Plan, which stipulate the establishment of a Jewish and democratic state, not solely a Jewish state.

This is precisely how the Partition Plan envisioned welcoming Israel to the international community. First, it must be a nation-based state, namely, a Jewish state. Second, it has to be a constitutional democratic state. And third, a proper balance has to be established between Israel’s Jewish identity and democracy, which reflects the particular circumstances of Mandatory Palestine and the expectations that its national indigenous minorities would become full legal citizens of the other nation state, i.e., an Arab minority in the Jewish state and a Jewish minority in the Arab state.

However, the Partition Plan was never adopted by the United Nations Security Council; thus, it remains an unbinding resolution of UNGA. Why should Israel, if at all, adopt the conceptual grounds of the Partition Plan as a model for good governance? The simple fact determines the answer that the merits and terminology of the Partition Plan regarding the nature of Israel were adopted in its Declaration of Independence. Therefore, what was anticipated by the Partition Plan was then also pledged by the Declaration of Independence, and these commitments must be fulfilled.

The Declaration of Independence

The truth is that if Israel aimed to be admitted to the international community, it did not have much choice in its decision to follow the steps of the Partition Plan. First, the Partition Plan sets forth what should be included in the Declaration of Independence. And second, for Israel’s Founding Fathers, it was crucial to dignify the Partition Plan as the first official international recognition of the right of the Jewish nation to self-determination, thus emphasizing the Jewish people’s right to establish a state of their own as an irrevocable right. Accordingly, it is plausible to believe that it was not by chance that the Declaration is in complete harmony with the Partition Plan concerning the nature of Israel, not only as a Jewish and democratic state but even as a Jewish and constitutional democratic state.

It must be noted that the Declaration of Independence fails to include the words “Jewish and democratic state.” Not only that, but the Declaration of Independence also omits the word “democracy.” However, as correctly held by the Supreme Court of Israel, a plausible interpretation of the Declaration leaves no doubt as to the democratic nature of Israel.

In any case, Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, as amended in 1994, provides that its purpose is to establish the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and that the fundamental human rights in Israel shall be upheld in the spirit of the principles outlined in its Declaration of Independence. This leads to the decisive conclusion that the values of Israel are outlined in the Declaration and that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.


Liberal versus Non-Liberal Societies

Liberal societies are pluralistic and peaceful; they are governed by reasonable people who protect fundamental human rights. These rights include providing a certain minimum means of subsistence, security, liberty, and personal property, as well as formal equality and self-respect as expressed by the rules of natural justice. Liberal societies encourage pluralism of ideas and provide avenues to empower opposition and have no qualms about presenting questions with no definite answers, challenging common truisms, presenting competing ideas, admitting human fallibility, and celebrating heresy. They are unlike non-liberal societies, which fail to treat their people as genuinely free and equal and adopt norms based on compulsion and coercion. Authoritarian societies aggressively fight to undermine political opponents. Theocracies attempt to provide strict answers to all questions and concerns.

On Liberal Democracies

A state is a liberal democracy, not if but insofar as the great mass of the population can exercise effective influence on the process of decision-making. Liberal democracy is a matter of degree, not a fixed concept. It is more useful to think in terms of a scale than to attempt to lay down conditions for democracy. The preservation of individual rights and the emancipation of the individual from public control mean that all enjoy equal rights. The majority decides the government’s identity, but it should not undermine equal rights for all.

Formal versus Liberal-Substantive Democracies

Within the concept of liberal democracy, it is possible to distinguish between formal and substantive democracies. Formal democracy is only interested in the majority’s opinion and seeks to enforce the majority’s decisions, whether good or bad. In contrast, substantive democracy respects the majority’s opinion yet simultaneously guarantees that minorities are protected, particularly when the majority exploits its power to abuse these minorities. Formal democracy acts in accordance with the rule of the legislature, no matter how right, decent, just, and fair the legislature might be; whenever the legislature says “the law is…” it becomes binding law. Substantive democracy is viewed as scrutinizing the legislature’s actions for their compatibility with the fundamental principles of fairness, reason, justice, and good. This is a healthy and desirable democracy, where political power is always limited, supervised, and scrutinized.

The distinction between formal and substantive democracy is represented by the meaning attributed to the Rule of Law, as being binding, not because it has been enacted in a proper formal procedure by a duly elected legislature, but because it is just and proper (recht in German, droit in French, and derecho in Spanish). In this context, the rule of law deals with the aspiration for governmental actions to comply with certain fundamental requirements, which are intended to guarantee the internal morality of the law.

Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State

The Partition Plan and Israel’s Declaration of Independence acknowledged the conceptual distinction between formal and liberal-substantive democracy and eventually adopted the latter.

Israel is a Jewish-ethnic democracy. The governance framework is democratic, but its underpinning concepts precede Judaism over the Respect for Others Principle and the Harm Principle. Consequently, Israel adopts non-liberal policies and discriminatory practices, preferring Jews over others.

This should not remain the case in Israel. Israel is defined as a Jewish and democratic state. So, it should remain as was initially anticipated by the international community, as was promised in the Declaration of Independence and its Basic Laws.

Israel must strike a proper balance between its Jewish identity and its democratic nature. This will be possible only if Israel acknowledges that democracy and Jewishness (and/or Judaism) are not values in themselves but instead means to achieve other idealistic values. Both can bring about destructive consequences if governmental power is abused, and both can establish constructive hopes if adhered to substantively.

Israel should express its Jewishness through the right to return, the observance of official Jewish holidays, and sanctioning Hebrew as the official state language. The right of return for Jews, being part of the Jewish nation, is the golden key granted to them to enter the Israeli home. As a Jewish state, Israel is the homeland of the Jewish nation, thus entitling all its members a unique key to enter the house. However, every legal citizen, whether a Jew or not, must be treated fairly, equally, and equitably within that house.

As for Israel’s democracy, Israel should promote principles of substantive democracy by lending itself to liberal values. Recalling the distinction between formal and substantive democracies, it is notable that, especially in recent years, several governmental official voices perceive democracy as nothing but a means to fulfill the needs and the wishes of the electoral majority, notwithstanding how immoral they might be. This is a wrong and dangerous approach. Unlike its politicians, the Israeli judiciary, represented by the Court, has played an essential role in advancing and protecting the values of substantive democracy and in protecting the rights and liberties of minorities against any possible abuse of power by the democratically elected majority.

The Arab Minority of the Jewish and Democratic State

Like Israeli citizens on the one hand and Arab nationals on the other, the Arab minority, as full and legal citizens of Israel, should have a better and more precise understanding of their multiple identities.

In any case, the Arab minority citizens of Israel do not have to be Zionists, nor do they have to be patriotic to Israel, yet they should be loyal. Patriotism expresses solidarity, which crosses all political, national, and international boundaries, whereas loyalty embodies a contractual relationship between the state and its citizens. Israeli Arabs’ nationality as Arabs does not (and must not) undermine their citizenship as Israelis, nor does their citizenship vis-à-vis their nationality. Israel, in turn, must be loyal to its Arab citizens and refrain from treating them as a “fifth column” whenever, even in times of war, they oppose any governmental policy.

The Arab minority citizens of Israel should have the absolute and inherent right to feel solidarity toward their Arab brothers and sisters from other Arab countries, mainly Palestinian Arabs. In the course of expressing their solidarity, the Arab minority citizens of Israel may (and should be allowed to) invoke all legitimate legal, social, and political means. But still, they may not raise an arm against Israel, precisely as Israel should not have raised an arm against them in October 2000.

Epilogue: Dancing Together Toward a Better Future

The recent enactment of the Nation-State Law raises basic queries regarding the future of Israel as initially defined as a Jewish and democratic state. My concerns are derived from the understanding that, in the end, Israel might be either close to Utopia or Dystopia.

Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens should treat each other, all the more so themselves, as insiders, not outsiders, to Israel. It is their duty to draw a rosy picture of their reality. It is for both of them to adhere to legitimate means of political power, judicial review, and other permissible social and administrative methods of struggle for all existing forms of discrimination to disappear.

Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens must be active in patching up the gaps, and so must the State of Israel, as the ultimate regulating governmental power. Patching up the gaps between the majority and other minorities shall not be solely the concern of minorities, who must, day and night, give up their rights, suffocate their freedoms, and limit their liberties. This must primarily be of the utmost concern to the majority, who must strike a balance between its interests and the rights of the minorities, thus expressing tolerance and compassion toward the latter. Moreover, in diverse states, such as Israel, the urgent involvement of governmental power is required for all means of reconciliation to be achieved.

If Israel does not take the initiative to become a better state for its minorities, in the near future the Arab minority and the Jewish majority citizens of Israel will drive on separate roads; they will take separate buses; and they will fight each other publicly, day and night, in the streets as well as in narrow passageways. If Israel does not regain its composure promptly, it will be neither a Jewish state nor a democratic state. Then, Israel will lose its moral legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state. This must not happen. It is only for them, all Israelis, Arabs, and Jews alike, to take their fate into their hands, and dance toward a better future.


Mohammed Wattad is Dean and Associate Professor, School of Law, Deputy Vice President for Academic Affairs, Zefat Academic College; Senior Researcher, the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel-Aviv University; Research Fellow, the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Reichman University; and Research Fellow, the Minerva Center for the Rule of Law under Extreme Conditions, Haifa University.